Friday, 23 November 2012

Lingua Indica??

The most endearing fallout of the publishing of my infamous ` Open Letter to General Kayani’ in the Pakistani press, was that it put me in touch with a lot of Pakistani journalists and writers, some of whom I am now privileged to call as friends. One of them, the delightful Mohammed Hanif (author of the must read ` A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and `Our lady of Alice Bhatti’) has written a beautiful piece on mother tongues et al on Wordpress..

It got me thinking. I can read and write fluently in English and Hindi, and with a fair bit of labour in Urdu, Punjabi and Marathi. Being the youngest child in the family, with a mother who was asthmatic, and a father in his forties, I was brought up mostly by my sisters who were teenagers and studying at St Anne’s, or the maid Mathu Bai. So the first languages I was exposed to were my sisters ` Convent English’ and, to a lesser extent, my parents Punjabi and Mathu Bai’s Marathi. 

At St Vincent’s, it was much as Hanif describes urban Pakistan - the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility. Marathi was frowned upon, and the Hindi we occasionally spoke was typical ` Bambaiya’ – the aayela, gayela variety.

We carried this elitist attitude into Fergusson College, where we, the ` English medium’ types, happened to be in a minority. We walked around with our noses high in the air, and frowned upon the vernacular second class citizenry. This lasted for all of two to three weeks, till we realised what an excellent lot the other guys were, and how much we had in common. There’s nothing like romancing a true blue `Marathi mulgi’ behind the Geology lab to really integrate yourself into the mainstream!

In the Army, Punjabi is the lingua fanca, and even pucca Southies like course mate Kelly Vishwanath learn to speak it fluently.

At Tezpur, I was once castigated for the terrible food at a Mess party (I was the food member). The CO, Col Jaswant Singh, as rustic a sardar as ever donned the olive greens (a true GEM of a human being), roundly denounced the koftas as having tasted like `bademey’!  His BP shot up a further few notches when he saw I had no clue what the word meant. Much later, when I narrated the incident to my father, he castigated me in his own turn "Tainu bademey nahin pata??" Apparently, the term refers to the seeds/kernels of cotton plants, which are fed to cattle in rural Punjab. 

To my lasting dismay, I have always been branded an outcast by both the core groups that I belong to. While my fellow Maharashtrians brand me a ` Punju’, my Punjabi brethren have always dismissed me as a `Mhratta’.  

As only the great Allama Iqbal could have put it..

Zaahid-e-tang nazar ne mujhe kaafir jana
Aur kaafir yeh samajhta hai musalman hun main

Friday, 9 November 2012

What though the field be lost...

It was a winter evening when my sister, her ten year old son and I were travelling by train from Bombay to Poona.  The boy had always been a fussy eater, and my sister used to spend most of her waking hours in trying to force feed him.  At Lonavala station, she bought him a sumptuous thali meal (they were sumptuous in those days), which the young lad proceeded to ignore or turn his nose up at in what was, for me, an all too familiar tableau.  Meanwhile, a beggar lad, roughly the same age as my nephew, stood at the window and gazed at the thali with a longing that was heart wrenching. Where there was appetite, I sighed, here was no food, and where there was food….

 A coursemate and close friend had just been posted to Poona as Chief of Staff.  We sat sipping the good staff one evening on the sprawling lawns of his palatial, colonial style bungalow.  “How many rooms does this have?” I asked him in wonder.  His wife shook her head ruefully “Don’t ask”, she said “When the kids were with us, we couldn’t even give them separate rooms of their own! And now when they’re away in the US, the Army gives us this palace..”

When we were young subalterns and captains in the Army, all we could afford to drink in the Mess was Hercules rum (with Coke, till George Fernandes threw Coca Cola out of India). Scotch was a hallowed word whispered in reverential tones, and emerged from the cellar only when a particularly high up General was visiting the Mess. Those were the days when we could (and did) cheerfully polish off half a bottle of rum in an evening, and still be on time for PT the next morning. Today, as bottles of Glenfedich and Chivas line my bar at home, I can’t even have a second `small’ without reaching for an Alka Seltzer the next morning.

You want to check the seniority roll in a regiment – just take a dekko at the queue at the buffet table in the Oficers’ Mess. In the days when we could easily have wolfed down a whole tandoori chicken merely as a starter, we, being low in the pecking order, were lucky if we even got a good neck piece.  And the only guy who managed an extra helping of the ubiquitous `Tipsy pudding’ was the food member who had thoughtfully stashed away a bowl for himself. Today, the `leg pieces’ and `rabri-jalebis’ are all within arm’s reach, but lipid profiles and triglicerides have become the bane of our existence..

And lastly, but most poignantly, comes the clincher and the wake up call. When your kids are kids and want you to play with them, you’re the Adjutant of your regiment, and the world would naturally collapse if you leave the office half an hour early.  Now you have all the time in the world, but where are they? Just when you think you’ve got the hang of parenting, you’re no longer required to be a parent. Just when you get good at being a dad, you’re simply fired from the job!!

Truly, where there is appetite there is no food, and where there is food…